Tag Archives: 1920s office workers

A Woman’s Clothing Budget for 1924 versus 1936

It’s always hard to look at a vintage ad or catalog, see a pair of shoes for $6.50, and figure out whether they were expensive or affordable or really cheap at the time. A while ago, I found several articles about living on $18 per week in the 1930’s. Click here to read more about them. I’ll be citing some of the same charts here.

Gowns from B. Altman catalog, 1924-25. Prices, left to right, $55, $78, $65

Gowns from B. Altman catalog, 1924-25. Prices, left to right, $55, $78, $65.

I’ve been looking through JoAnne Olian’s book on the B. Altman catalogs from the 1920’s. I was surprised by how high Altman’s clothing prices seemed, especially early in the decade. Then I remembered that I have some articles about clothing budgets in the 1920’s, which might give me a better idea of nineteen twenties’ clothing prices.

I decided to compare the nineteen twenties’ and thirties’ budget advice, and see if I could follow it by “shopping” at Sears.

I was struck by one similarity:  In both 1924 and 1936, a college educated office worker — female — could expect to be paid “$18 per week.” So she probably wouldn’t be shopping from the B. Altman catalog; nevertheless, trying to look nicely dressed for work was a real concern.

This woman earned $18 per week in 1924:

Budget for living on $18 per week. Delineator, Aug. 1924, p. 21.

Earning $18 per week in 1924. Delineator, Aug. 1924, p. 21.

“…It is necessary that I at all times look well. My wages are figured at the rate of forty cents an hour, which usually averages up to eighteen dollars a week.”

This woman earned $18 per week in 1937:

 Earning $18 a week in 1937. Woman's Home Companion ad, Sept. 1937.

Earning $18 a week in 1937. Woman’s Home Companion ad, Sept. 1937.

“… For several years I could not expect to earn more than $18 a week, even though … I was a bit above the average beginner. Therefore my small salary would just about pay my board and keep me in lunches and carfare with nothing left. I needed new clothes [for] the office … because my dress was so shabby.”

Woman’s Clothing Budget in the 1930’s

In 1936, this article asked “Can a college girl dress on a dollar and a half a week?”

"What Can A Girl Live On?" Woman's Home Companion, Oct. 1936

“What Can A Girl Live On?” Woman’s Home Companion, Oct. 1936. Total clothing budget for the year:  $76.55, about one month’s salary.

It concluded that . . .

Budget for living on $20 per week. From Woman's Home Companion, Oct. 1934.

Budget for living on $20 per week. From Woman’s Home Companion, Oct. 1936.

. . . A college graduate making $20 a week in 1936 could afford to spend just $78 a year — $1.50 per week — on clothes. “By being economical she can live decently and comfortably on seven hundred and fifty dollars.” (In theory, she would also be able to save over $100 per year, and/or take a vacation! Or so they said.)

Woman’s Clothing Budget in the 1920’s

The stenographer who wrote to Delineator magazine in August, 1924, asked how a woman with an office job could live — and dress well enough to satisfy her employers — on $18 a week.

That’s right:  The salary of a female office worker was exactly the same — $18 per week — in 1924 and 1936. But in 1924, The Delineator’s experts reached a somewhat different conclusion about her necessary expenditures on clothing.

Living on $18 in 1924. Delineator, Aug. 1924, p. 19.

How a woman can live on $18 a week in 1924. Delineator, Aug. 1924, p. 19.

In 1924, $3.00 per week was allowed for clothing purchases — twice as much as in 1936. But in 1924, she needed much less for food and lodging (50% of her income) than in the thirties (62.5%.)

Comparing a Working Girl’s Budget, 1924 and 1936

I’m not enthusiastic about the way Woman’s Home Companion rounded $18 per week up to “$80 per month or $960 per year,” so I’ve compared percentages of  income as stated, and lightened my derived figures on this chart.) I multiplied $18 by 52 weeks; WHC multiplied $20 x 4 x 12 months.)

Percent of income spent on Food, Lodging, and Clothes as budgeted in Woman's Home Companion (1936) and Delineator (1924).

Percent of income spent on Food, Lodging, and Clothes as budgeted in Woman’s Home Companion (1936) and Delineator (1924). Click to enlarge. It assumes living in a rented room, probably without a kitchen, and eating many meals out.

Perhaps, during the Depression, food cost more, leaving less money for clothing? Or had mass produced fashions become much more affordable?

Just for fun, I tried to find comparable items in the Sears Roebuck catalogs for 1924 and 1936, always choosing the cheapest similar items I could find to build a stenographer’s wardrobe.

Comparing a Working Girl’s Clothing Prices, 1924 and 1936

After browsing through Sears Roebuck Catalogs for 1924 and 1936, I’m struck by the decrease in some clothes prices. (In both cases, I looked for the very cheapest, not the mid-priced, garments.)

Skirts and Blouses

Wool skirts, Sears catalog, Fall 1924.

Wool skirts, Sears catalog, Fall 1924. The cheapest costs $3.48.

Wool blend skirts from Sears catalog, Fall, 1936.

Wool & wool blend skirts from Sears catalog, Fall, 1936. About $2.00 each. The cheapest costs $1.00.

Inexpensive blouses were easier to find in the thirties, too.

Inexpensive blouses from the Sears catalog, Fall, 1924.

Inexpensive blouses from the Sears catalog, Fall, 1924. Three of these cost less than a dollar each, but the most expensive is $3.48 — or more, in stout sizes.

Blouses from Sears catalog, Fall 1936.

Blouses from Sears catalog, Fall 1936. Six cost $1 each, and the others are less than $2. Could any woman make her own blouse for $1 (pattern 15 cents, thread, material @ 14 to 69 cents per yard, and buttons)? Maybe.

A typist could buy a skirt and blouse for less than $3.00 in the thirties, or about $4.50 in the twenties. But she’d have to settle for the cheapest clothes available from stores like Sears, not from upscale department stores.

Dresses suitable for the office:

The cheapest Sears dresses (excluding cotton housedresses) cost about $5.00 in 1924:

Wool dresses suitable for for the office, Sears catalog, Fall 1924.

Wool dresses suitable for for the office, Sears catalog, Fall 1924. These three were among the very cheapest in the catalog, with many more dresses in the $8 to $16 range. The average price of the 11 dresses described on this page is $7.39.

In 1936, most Sears business dresses were made of Celanese, rather than wool, so they are not strictly comparable.

Dresses from Sears catalog, Fall 1936.

Dresses from Sears catalog, Fall 1936. The $5 dress on the right can be transformed with different necklines.

Sears dresses for $3.98 in 1936. Fall 1936 catalog.

Sears dresses for $3.98 in 1936. Fall 1936 catalog. “Every one a $5.00 value.”

The cheapest nineteen thirties’ office dresses from Sears are about $4; and the variety in this lowest price range is much bigger than in the twenties. Office workers with only one or two dresses could make it seem like they had more by wearing different collars. (See One Good Dress in the 1930’s. ) Patterns for “change-about” dresses were also available. In 1936, the Woman’s Home Companion budget allowed a stenographer just four dresses per year, at $5 each.

Coats

You could find a winter coat for about $9 at Sears in the twenties or the thirties. Of course, a coat was expected to last at least two years.

Inexpensive coats from Sears catalog, Fall 1924.

Inexpensive coats from Sears catalog, Fall 1924. Pure Wool cost more than ” wool velour” or duvetyn.

Better Sears coats cost two to four times as much as these. In 1924-25, a fur-trimmed wool coat from the B. Altman catalog cost $110 to $115:

The coat on the left cost $110, the one on the right $115. B. Altman catalog, 1924 1925.

The coat on the left cost $110, the one on the right $115. B. Altman catalog, 1924 1925.

Better quality fur-trimmed coats from Sears could cost $49 in 1924. And our “stenographer” had only $156 to spend on an entire, year-round wardrobe — coats, shoes, dresses, hats, stockings at about $1 per pair (a big ongoing expense), underwear, etc.

"Economy" coats from Sears Catalog, Fall 1936.

“Economy” coats from Sears Catalog, Fall 1936.

In 1936, The Woman’s Home Companion budgeted $12.50 for a winter coat, every other year. These coats from Sears are a real bargain — assuming that they actually kept you warm and dry.

Shoes:

Inexpensive shoes from Sears cost much less in the 1930’s than in the 1920’s:

Sears shoes, Fall 1924. Stylish, but about $4 per pair.

Sears shoes, Fall 1924. Stylish, but most cost about $4 to $5 per pair.

Shoes from Sears, fall 1936. In all the current styles, and only $2 per pair.

Shoes from Sears, fall 1936. In up-to-date styles, and less than $2 per pair.

In 1936, The Woman’s Home Companion allowed a young woman four pairs of shoes per year — at $3 per pair.

Conclusion:  A careful shopper, fresh out of college and earning $18 per week, could definitely make her clothing budget go farther in 1936 than in 1924 — but she would not be buying $6.50 shoes, and no one with an eye for quality would consider her well-dressed.

Skirtsa dna bloused from the B. Altman catalog, 1925. THe ensemble on the left cost $18.50; the one in the middle was $24.25, and the one on the right cost $24.50.

Skirts and blouses from the B. Altman catalog, 1925. The ensemble on the left cost $18.50, a whole week’s salary; the one in the middle was $24.25, and the one on the right cost $24.50.

No wonder there was a boom in clothing patterns and home sewing in the 1920’s — largely because early twenties’ dress styles were easier to make than ever before. Isaac Singer is credited with the invention of the installment plan, but you’d have to make a lot of clothes to amortize the cost of a sewing machine….

Sears' Portable electric Franklin sewing machine, Spring 1925.

Sears’ portable electric Franklin sewing machine, Spring 1925.

Sewing Machine Prices, 1925 and 1936

In 1925, you could get a treadle sewing machine from Sears for $33, or a portable electric for $43. By 1936, you could get an electric portable or table model from Sears for less than $30 — but inexpensive machines with the new, round shuttle cost more — about $38. In either year, we’re talking about two weeks’ wages for a working woman.

CAUTION:  I did this study for fun, and tried to be accurate. But these samples are much too small for real scholarship. Since not all issues of Delineator and Woman’s Home Companion are widely available — or indexed — I wanted to let serious students of economics know that this material exists — and deserves a more thorough evaluation than I am capable of doing.

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Filed under 1920s, 1920s-1930s, 1930s, A Costumers' Bookshelf, Musings, Old Advertisements & Popular Culture, Shoes, Sportswear, Uniforms and Work Clothes

Not All Flappers Wanted to Be Flat in the 1920s

I love Art Deco style, but I’m always glad that I didn’t have to be young in the 1920s, because I have exactly the wrong figure for 1920s dress styles. And then, one day, I looked at this photo of my mother in a 1920s bathing suit, and realized that she had exactly the wrong figure for the twenties, too.

On the right:  Stranded in the 1920s with a  Gibson Girl figure.

On the right: Stranded in the 1920s with a Gibson Girl figure.

 But that was her era.

She was a teenager when the 1920s began, a popular, fun-loving, slightly wild girl (She eloped while still in high school.) She was the first girl in town to get her hair bobbed; she loved fabric shopping and sewing her own dresses, going dancing, and earning her own living in “The City” as a secretary. So I think it’s fair to say she was a flapper. helen in washington 500 dpi 20s

 

“The boyish figure sans bust and curves and waistline is the ideal silhouette.” –Evelyn Dodge, Delineator magazine, July, 1925.1925 july  5204 swim july shortened

Underneath 1920s Fashions

Some women in search of the boyish figure bought “Boyshform binders,” or the “Flatter-U” brassiere or bandeaux, or wore flattening brassiere-and-girdle combinations called corselettes. [See Underpinning the Twenties: Brassieres, Bandeaux, and Bust Flatteners, and Underpinning the Twenties: Girdles and Corsets]

Corselette pattern, Butterick, 1925, and Bien Jolie Corsette Ad, 1925. Delineator.

Corselette pattern, Butterick, 1925, and Bien Jolie Corsette Ad, 1925. Delineator.

Others wore only one thin layer of light cotton or silk ‘combinations,’ or camisoles and bloomers, and rolled their stockings  over elastic garters to hold them up, eliminating the girdle completely.

Combinations or Teddies, and a Chemise set, all from April 1925, Delneator.

Combinations or Teddies, and a Chemise set, all from April 1925, Delneator.

Some women wore even less.

Some Flappers Did Not Try to Reshape Their Figures

Writer Elspeth Huxley spent 1927 as a student at Cornell University. An animal husbandry major, she was matter-of-fact about sex, but she was surprised enough to record this incident:

“A teddy was the silk slip worn by some co-eds; others wore no underclothes at all. One, demonstrating a device she had thought of, peeled off her dress to reveal herself naked but for a strip of adhesive bridging the buttocks. ‘It improves my silhouette,’ she said.” – from Love Among the Daughters: Memories of the Twenties in England and America, by Elspeth Huxley; p. 244.

I would love to know more about the placement of that adhesive strip!

Never Assume

A graceful 1920s figure; this one is surprisingly late, from 1929.

A graceful 1920s figure; this one is surprisingly late, from 1929.

“Never Assume” is a rule of the costume shop. But I realize now that I have been assuming that young women who chose to wear next-to-nothing under their clothes were the ones who had a slim build, close to the twenties’ fashion ideal.

July, 1928 (left); December 1925 (right); Butterick patterns from Delineator.

July, 1928 (left); December 1925 (right); Butterick patterns from Delineator.

I confess I’m a little surprised, looking this photo of people in similar fashions, that some young women apparently chose not to wear a brassiere or bandeau, even if they had very un-boyish, unfashionable curves.

Two office workers, late 1920s. They demonstrate two, different contemporary attitudes toward underwear.

Two office workers, late 1920s. They demonstrate two, very different, contemporary attitudes toward underwear.

The girl on the right has what is usually thought of as an “ideal” nineteen twenties figure; her bust is so flat that I suspect she is wearing a breast binder. The girl on the left is obviously wearing nothing more restrictive than a chemise or combinations as underclothes. Her body is far from the 20s ideal, but she looks confident and completely at ease.

Seeing Through Clothes

Anne Hollander has demonstrated, in Seeing Through Clothes, how strong the influence of fashion is on our idea of beauty – to the extent that artists sometimes paint nudes as if they were wearing an invisible corset. This raises the question: Can we ever see through the eyes of another era?

Which of those girls was considered more attractive by the men of the late 1920s? Were other women scandalized when the big-breasted girl danced the Charleston? Or did many young women dress just as revealingly?

I think I know which one a man would be more likely to bring home to meet his mother – but – I shouldn’t assume!

 

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Filed under 1920s, A Costumers' Bookshelf, Bras, Corselettes, Corsets & Corselettes, Underthings, Hosiery, Corsets, etc, vintage photographs